Rare Birds

Joe Jackson discovers originality of simple things in distinctive Duke Ellington tribute album

Joe Jackson discovers originality of simple things in distinctive Duke Ellington tribute album

Joe Jackson, The Duke, album cover
Joe Jackson's latest album, The Duke
Joe Jackson, musician
Joe Jackson Photo by Frank Veronsky
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington Keep Swinging
Joe Jackson, The Duke, album cover
Joe Jackson, musician
Duke Ellington

"I am an optimist," the great American composer Duke Ellington is quoted as saying. "Music is mostly all right, or at least in a healthy state for the future. In spite of the fact that it may sound as though it is being held hostage."

That quote appeared inside the gatefold of Joe Jackson's 1982 hit album Night & Day, and is one of many references Jackson has made throughout his career to Ellington's music and spirit.

Jackson's newest album, The Duke, is a collection of what amounts to 10 arrangements of 15 different Ellington compositions, featuring a international cast of guest musicians, including Iranian vocalist Sussan Deyhim, jazz violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Steve Vai, drummer Ahmir '?uestlove' Thompson, and, believe it or not, Iggy Pop, who totally nails his vocal on Jackson's beat crazy version of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

"Leonard Bernstein once said that Beethoven was great because he was 'accessible without ever being ordinary.' I think that only applies to the greatest artists, and certainly to Ellington."

 To promote The Duke, which debuted at number one on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart, Jackson is hitting the road with a six-piece ensemble named The Bigger Band. There are only a handful of U.S. dates, and unfortunately, they don't include Houston.

Some composers are like Shakespeare; their repertoire is like a great library or database that only reveals more every time you access it. As a student and fan of both Jackson and Ellington, I return to their music often for inspiration and education, and it was a pleasure to revisit their music while preparing questions for this interview. 

CultureMap: As irreverent as the music on The Duke may be, it's obvious to me you couldn't be having this much fun with Duke Ellington's music if you didn't have a thorough understanding of it.  That said, in the process of arranging Ellington's music for this record, did you discover anything new about these particular compositions?

Joe Jackson: I'm not sure what I discovered that was "new," but I did come to appreciate Ellington more than ever. What really blows me away is the originality of simple things. Or things that sound simple enough, but not familiar or clichéd, and when you look just at how the melody and harmony are put together, for instance, it's extremely unusual, and no one else would have done it.

Leonard Bernstein once said that Beethoven was great because he was "accessible without ever being ordinary." I think that only applies to the greatest artists, and certainly to Ellington.

CM: In the liner notes to The Duke, you talk about your teenage music education. Were you in a conservatory at that age?

JJ: There was a small music department in what I guess in American terms, would have been my high school. The music teacher was pretty much the only person who ever encouraged my interest in music, so I think that made a difference.

After that I went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying composition, piano and percussion. In addition to classical studies they had a jazz workshop. I went on a scholarship, as there's no way my family could have afforded it.

I think music education is very important. People who think it's a frivolous luxury are missing the point. The more people who learn to appreciate music, the more people will play it, record it, buy it, and make a living from it. It's good for the whole society.

 "Music education is very important. People who think it's a frivolous luxury are missing the point. The more people who learn to appreciate music, the more people will play it, record it, buy it, and make a living from it." 

CM: You sometimes hear musicians refer to an "Ellington approach" to composition and arranging. What made Ellington's approach to composing and arranging for big bands, from the 1920s on up through the 1970s, so ground breaking?

JJ: His harmonic sense is a big part of it, it's much more lush, complex and dissonant than anyone else, and enabled him to create much more varied colors and moods. People often say that's in the arrangements but it's really the harmony.

But as an arranger he did distinctive things too — unusual combinations of instruments, giving the baritone sax the lead in the section, etc. Also very importantly, he wrote specific parts for the personalities of specific musicians, so you always hear these distinctive voices sticking out of the ensemble.

CM: Ellington is frequently quoted from his autobiography Music is my Mistress: "Jazz is only a word and really has no meaning. We stopped using the word 'jazz' in 1943." Going on to say, "I don't believe in categories of any kind." Does that last statement about categories resonate with you as a composer?

JJ: Absolutely. I figured out pretty early on that being very eclectic was the only way to be true to myself, even if other people had problems with it. So to see someone of the caliber of Ellington with the same approach is inspiring.

CM: To my ears, The Duke hangs together like a suite, performed by a virtual, cross-cultural dream band. Was there a conscious effort throughout to hear the sum of the parts, the completed tracks as well as the various performances, as one statement?

JJ: That was not a conscious plan from the beginning, but like with all my albums, as it takes shape I'm constantly looking for ways to kind of mold it into a satisfying whole. Even if there isn't a 'concept', I want all the tracks to at least sound like they belong together.

CM: You've been in the recording industry for some time. From your perspective, in 2012, is it easier or harder to get a label behind a project as multidimensional and perhaps commercially risky as The Duke?

JJ: Everything about the recording industry is much harder than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

CM: When it comes to music and it's future, are you, like Ellington, "an optimist?"

JJ: I don't know about the future of music. I don't even know about the future of MY music. But I try to maintain an optimistic attitude because one thing that's certain is that pessimism doesn't get you anywhere.

Joe Jackson and Iggy Popp on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)":